I think that one way to start with India is to talk about driving. It is the first thing you'll notice. It's unavoidable, interesting, and a definite conversation starter. I was driven there by private vehicle, rickshaw, taxi cab of various style, private tourist vehicle, and very briefly: motorcycle. When I got in the back seat of my friends car, pulled the seatbelt around me and attempted to buckle it, there was no buckle. Passengers simply don't wear seatbelts. It was from that moment, I knew I was in for an adventure. (And that was after I slept in an airport, ran through Dubai airport, struggled through immigration, and had my checked bag lost.) Stories for another time.
The streets are exactly what you may expect: loud, chaotic, insane, impatient, fast, crowded, and completely bereft of rules and regulations, but secretly, I loved it.
I am of a firm belief, (I know now, shared by most Indians) that if you're not going forward in a car, then what are you doing?
I can really get behind the philosophy of 'make space so more people can go when the light turn green' or, 'if you're at a light and no one is coming the other way, then just go!' or, 'He who hesitates, waits, and will absolutely never cross the road.'
I will honk maybe one time a year. They will honk at least once every five minutes of driving. It is incessant and unyielding at all times of day. But it's polite...mostly. I mean, I reserve honking for when someone has failed to see that our light turned green or when I feel I am in imminent danger. And every time I honk, somewhere inside me I feel bad about it. But in India, the honking is just to keep the cars around you informed. 'I'm pulling out and I know you're in my way, but I'm pulling out anyway.' 'Don't cross now, because I am not stopping.' 'I intend to make this left turn from the right lane. And you will let me.' 'I am overtaking you now.' and my favorite, 'Move, cow.' (referring to an actual cow)
In ways, it's an ingenious system. It seems to get things done and appears to make for very cognisant, observant drivers with quick reflexes. Why just follow the care behind you? That's so boring. They overtake on what I consider not to drivable surfaces. How about passing on a blind curve, or at the crest of the hill without headlights. I enjoyed being on a four lane divided highway and suddenly finding traffic coming toward us in our lane. But no one yells, they just adapt. In all of the drivers I witnessed, no one looked mad, no one yelled, no one gestured. A simple honk said it all.
Being in cars was one of the best parts of the trip. There was so much to observe that I could barely blink. Even on a four lane highway, one could find cars, trucks, motorcycles, camel carts, horse carts, bicycles, herds of goats, pedestrians, everything! India is a country of great faith, which is clearly illustrated on the roads. Every Hindu driver we had had a Ganesh statue on the dash board. As Ganesh is the remover of obstacles, I suppose it is fitting.
I think my biggest question was 'why?' Why take such unnecessary risks with your life? Why think it was okay to put your entire family of five (infant included) unhelmeted on the back of a motorcycle? Why not wear seatbelts? I don't really know the answer, but I would assume that it's something to do with tradition and education. Laws are changing and I saw seatbelt and helmet enforcement first hand. But then I think, why do our governments have to tell us what to do all the time? Can't we all be left to 'live free or die?' If I'm told as a free thinking adult that seatbelts will save my life and choose not to use one, that should be my prerogative, right? Okay, let's not get too crazy.
I know I will now undo everything I have said so far, but I think it is worth noting some statistics on this subject. Let's just say that with populations of 300 million and one billion, the US and India are fairly incomparable. But the US has 900 cars on the road per 1000 people. India has 18 cars on the road per 1000 people. That's pretty amazing. Especially when you think that the US had 33,000 road deaths in 2009 while India had 150,000. Of course, like all statistics, they must be taken with a grain of salt.
I will not be swayed in thinking that car travel in India is anything but fascinating, exciting, daring and an absolute 'must do'.